In June 2014, to great fanfare, the then UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, and the Special Envoy to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Angelina Jolie, co-chaired the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict.
With over 1,700 delegates from over 120 countries, the meeting was impressive, both in scale and in its ambition to ‘end the use of rape and sexual violence in conflicts around the world’, to hold to account those responsible and to work towards the prevention of sexual violence in conflict as a ‘critical’ element to ‘peace, security and sustainable development’.
Fast forward to 24 September 2018: a United Nations Population Fund fringe event highlighted the plight of women and adolescent girls affected by conflict, discussing sexual and reproductive health and gender-based violence (GBV) services for those females in humanitarian settings. Focussing on the impact of conflict on women and girls in South Sudan and Yemen, the discussion appeared to imply that not much had changed since the 2014 summit. Or has it?
Fast forward to 5 October 2018: two leaders of the struggle against sexual violence in war were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. One of the recipients, Nadia Murad, is a survivor of GBV, one of the thousands of Yazidis kidnapped, sexually abused and enslaved when Islamic State forces swept through Northern Iraq in 2014. The other recipient is Denis Mukwege, the inspirational founder of Panzi hospital in Bukavu, Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a gynaecologist who has supported thousands of victims and survivors of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) in the DRC since the hospital’s opening in 1999.
CRSV, which includes rape, sexual torture, sexual slavery and forced marriage, inflicts unimaginable pain, sometimes mortal injuries and physical and psychological suffering on victims, their families and their communities.
The University of Birmingham has been at the forefront of research into gender-based violence in conflict; projects in the School of History and Cultures, the Law School, the International Development Department and in Global Public Health, to name but a few, have contributed to the understanding that CRSV is not inevitable or unavoidable collateral damage related to conflict and war.
Crimes can be prevented and mitigated. An Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded workshop later this week will focus on GBV in peacekeeping operations, the prevention and mitigation of sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers, and the support of victims including children born of this exploitative behaviour. Several of the participants have worked with Denis Mukwege; being reminded of his and Nadia Murad’s important contributions to the fight against GBV will focus the workshop participants’ minds on the urgency of the task at hand.
The Prize is potent in its symbolism. It gives hope and reassurance to the victims of GBV in conflict and peacetime that their voices will be heard, at a time when women globally might have lost faith in politicians and institutions to deliver on the agenda proclaimed by the 2014 summit.
But the symbolism goes further: the prize is shared by a woman and a man; this reinforces the message that this award is no more a ‘women’s prize’ than GBV is a women’s problem. Beating GBV requires men and women to work together in their fight against abuse, exploitation and violence.
The prize is symbolic in another respect, too. Panzi hospital has been and continues to be a place where academics and practitioners join forces and overcome sectoral boundaries in order to enhance understanding of the factors that contribute to GBV in conflict. It is these collaborative efforts that will help moving closer to a world where ‘women and their fundamental rights and security are recognised and protected in war'.
The College of Arts and Law hosted a panel discussion, ‘If you desire peace, cultivate justice’, celebrating the work of Nobel Laureates Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad on Friday 12 October 2018. Discussants included Augustin Mirimo, Women Protection Advisor and UN Training Officer (Goma, DRC), and Dr Susan Bartels (Queen's University Kingston, Ontario), who has worked with Dr Mukwege at the Panzi Hospital.